Memories of St Mary’s Concert Band

St Mary’s Concert Band was much more than just a band. For those who took part in the Creggan concert outfit - both tutors and band members - it was a way of life.

Tonight’s reunion of the band taking place in the Park Bar looks set to be a night to remember. For the first time in decades musicians and tutors will come together to exchange old stories and memories, and if the brief catch-up in the ‘Journal’ office was anything to go by this week, there will be no shortage of tales.

In 1977, organisers of St Mary’s Youth Club in Creggan decided there was room in the Creggan community - in the middle of the Troubles - to educate a generation of local young people and turn them into musicians.

The idea came from committee member Thomas McAdams who was an experienced bandsman himself and the concept was enthusiastically greeted by Club Leader Kevin McCaul.

The Derry Journal of the day announced the beginning of the band as “a new addition to the arts development drive being undertaken by St Mary’s Youth Association is the Creggan School of Music, under the direction of Mr. Anthony Carlin.” The band began thanks to a £10,000 bank loan.

The rest is a colourful musical history which led to two marriages, countless friendships and years of great music.

In November 1977 musical instruments arrived from London and committee members happily received them including tutors Seamus McAnee, Patrick Walsh, Tommy Carlin, Tommy McAdams, Dessie Quigg and Tony McAdams. and the late Leo Carlin.

Tommy Carlin sums the experience of being involved with the St Mary’s concert band just perfectly.

“The happiest days of my life,” he said, while catching up with old friends ahead of this week’s reunion.

“Those days with the band were great, great days. We enjoyed every minute of them. There were nights when we practised until eleven o clock and many’s a night we had intended to go to the second picture show of the night but never made it. Everyone just really enjoyed it.”

Former St Mary’s concert band instructor Tony Carlin now lives in California, but a focus of many of the more colourful anecdotes around the band he was keen to take a trip down memory lane - albeit from the U.S

“I asked the players to have one eye on the music and the other eye on me, and I heard later that someone muttered: “Who does he think we are, Marty Feldman? “ joked Tony.

He continued: “A major factor in the band’s success, apart from the expertise and dedication of the tutors, was the camaraderie that the adults enjoyed. We were all good friends and I’m sure the bandmembers could sense the united approach of those in charge of their musical education.”

One of the young people who felt the benefit of that musical education was Lisa King, who joined the concert band when she was a primary five student. Lisa was one of four family members to have joined the band and joked about the fact that it was a break for her hard working mother.

“It was 50p each a week for everything but I’m sure it was worth it for my mother!” said Lisa.

“We were at band practice four nights a week but it was something you really enjoyed. You wanted to do your best for the tutors. It gave us the chance to perform in places we would never have played in in our lives like the Rialto and the Guildhall, not to mention the weekends away. And looking back on it now, even though we dreaded it at the time it was even enjoyable going round Creggan singing Christmas carols!”

Lisa’s sister Kathleen was also a member of the band after discovering that playing the violin on her own wasn’t quite as much fun as being in the community band.

“I was doing the violin at St Anne’s Primary School and there were another three in the house learning brass instruments so there was a lot of squeaking coming from our house. I feel sorry now for the neighbours looking back! When I joined the band at the start it was quite scary because you had to work hard before you had your place but it was all worth it and the band was almost like a family in itself. And the one thing I remember is that no matter what happened, or what was going on - and this was during the Troubles -you had to keep playing. I remember one time when we were playing outside the Guildhall and there was a riot going on. There were stones flying everywhere but we just kept playing and when we finished that piece, we got the instruments and ran!”

Jason McGilloway had a similar experience to Kathleen. As a pupil at St John’s Primary School in Creggan he’d been learning the cello but through a friend, Sinead Doherty, he heard about the St Mary’s Concert Band.

“I only had one question and that was ‘do they have drums up there?’” he recalled.

“When I knew they had, that was me. I already knew Paul McKeever, who was one of the tutors and I used to sneak into the orchestra pit. But I had to earn my place as a drummer, I walked in and I was handed a triangle and a cymbal - not what I was expecting! But eventually I managed to get there with the drums and it was brilliant. I enjoyed every minute of it and we were playing really different music like waltzes. It was a real education.”

One of the men who helped provide that education was Seamus McAnee, well known in community circles in Derry.

“It was brilliant, very enjoyable for everyone involved,” said Seamus,

“There was great music to be heard. The quality of the music and the standard of it was just great and it introduced many of us to certain kinds of music for the first time.”

Paul McKeever, who recently travelled home to Derry after suffering serious illness said he was pleased to be here to take part in the reunion having lived in the U.S for a number of years.

For Paul, the memories of being a tutor in the band are memories which have stayed with him down through the years.

“One of the main things I learned was discipline. It was about turning up on time with your instrument clean and shining. I remember having my first chance at conducting there too and it was so nervewracking. I think the band was ahead of its time too because we were taking part in competitions in parts of the North that young people from Creggan would never have been in. At one point during the Troubles here I remember we travelled to Portadown for a competition. We worked for weeks and weeks but everyone was conscious that we were going to an area where there could potentially be bother, but I remember when we got to the competition venue that the men carrying our instruments in had Union Jack tattoos and there were also times at home when we would have played with members of the Britannia band which at the time was a huge deal. I think so many horizons were broadened for us all by being a part of it.”

Sinead Gillespie, a Derry born author who now lives in England, also looked back with nothing but respect for those people who taught in the band.

She told the Journal: “I remember the first time I went along to band practice. I lived in Glenowen next door to Rosemary and Fionnuala Steed. I’d see them on Tuesdays and Thursdays heading off with these big, heavy, black instrument cases and I was nosy! I wanted to know what they were. Not only did they tell me, but they suggested I come along. That afternoon Thursday 8th June 1978, I was given a tenor horn and asked to make a noise with it. I could –and that was the beginning.

“As we lived in Glenowen we had to cross the ‘forest path’ alongside the reservoir to get to Creggan. It was seriously creepy in the dark going home, but that still didn’t stop us. Neither did the barricades of broken paving stones when Creggan was a ‘No Go’ area during the hunger strikes. We clambered over and played on.

“I think that says such a lot about the huge satisfaction we got out of everyone’s endeavours to make great music together. They are years I remember with absolute pride.”

For Sandra Campbell, who has been one of the key organisers of the reunion, it’s only now - as an adult herself - that she’s come to realise just how much commitment there was on behalf of those who organised the regular tuition and outings.

“We were so well cared for and looked after and that was a massive part of it all. And we were encouraged to do our very best. My dad , Dinger Bell , was a big influence and he played trombone in the TA band with Tommy and Leo too. He listened to me practise and enjoyed the success of the band so much .

“I think we’re all privileged to have played our part in the band.”